Breaking news story on the death of the presiding county commissioner / 1280 words / The Columbia Missourian
By Alexandria Baca and Hilary Niles
COLUMBIA, MO. — Ed Robb was a tough politician whose expertise in economics and budgeting made him a formidable foe, former political opponents and colleagues said. As a Republican, he didn’t mind going after public offices traditionally held by Democrats.
Robb, who had been Boone County’s presiding commissioner since Jan. 1, died Saturday night, his wife, Rosa Robb, confirmed Sunday morning.
Robb, 69, was elected to the county’s top position in November and sworn in just days after he had a pacemaker installed to address an irregular heartbeat.
Robb was having dinner to celebrate the birthday of his son, Adam Robb, at Boone Tavern on Saturday night and was in good spirits when he left the restaurant after 10 p.m., family friend Yancy Williams told the Missourian. He collapsed on the street as he was leaving and was taken to University Hospital, where hospital staff could not revive him.
Under state law, Gov. Jay Nixon will be responsible for appointing Robb’s replacement. Cheri Reisch, vice chairwoman of the Boone County Republican Party Central Committee, said that group will make a recommendation to Nixon. She was unsure how soon or exactly how that might happen. The committee’s next regular meeting is Tuesday night.
Robb, a Republican, served two terms as 24th District state representative from 2004 through 2008 and was vice chairman of the House Budget Committee. He defeated Democrat Travis Ballenger by more than 2,000 votes in the November 2004 election to become the first Republican to represent the district in more than 20 years. The 24th District includes parts of southern Columbia and southern Boone County.
He then narrowly defeated Democrat and former Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Jim Ritter for re-election in 2006. He sought a third term but lost by 411 votes to Democrat Chris Kelly in 2008.
Robb and Kelly set a record for money spent on a state representative campaign; together they spent nearly $400,000.
Kelly, who said he knew Robb for more than 25 years, said that although the two had an excellent working relationship, it became more tense during the 2008 campaign.
Robb was gracious after losing the election, Kelly said, wishing him well and offering help.
“He was a dedicated public servant,” Kelly said. “He cared very much about what he did by doing it right.”
Robb’s campaign against Ritter was particularly aggressive.
“When I was out on the campaign trail going door to door, I would often see him in the same area,” Ritter recalled. He said they would exchange greetings in passing, but they never stopped to talk.
“We had work to do,” he said. “It was never antagonistic between the two of us.”
Before becoming political opponents, the two worked together in a limited capacity on school issues.
“We had used him for advice and counsel on some of the issues we had been facing,” Ritter said. “So I knew him in a more casual way, in that sense.”
Ritter said he last saw Robb a couple of weeks ago at Columbia Mall, where they chatted about Robb’s new position on the county commission.
“He asked me if I would buy the (Boone County) Fairgrounds — tongue in cheek, of course,” Ritter said.
“Our philosophies were different, we found that out,” Ritter said. “As a result, I probably would have disagreed with some of his opinions” as county commissioner. “But that’s what politics is all about.”
Williams, of Consolidated Capital and Consulting, helped Robb with his three campaigns for state representative.
“He was a fatherly figure,” Williams said. “He was someone who was a friend first and a client second.”
Williams described Robb as compassionate, patient and understanding, which he said is illustrated by his commitment to teaching.
Robb was a retired economics professor at MU and owned Edward H. Robb and Associates, an economics consulting firm.
Robb defeated Democrat J. Scott Christianson for presiding commissioner last fall. He won by a margin of 531 votes among the nearly 50,000 cast.
One of his priorities in county government was to seek voter approval of a home-rule charter that would add more commissioners and give Boone County more legislative authority. He said in a previous Missourian story that he wanted voters to decide in April whether to create a commission to draft a charter.
“I think Ed was a big-idea guy. Ed always believed in the concept that we ought to have a more efficient system of county government,” Kelly said. “I believed that and supported that idea for many years.”
Neither Boone County Northern District Commissioner Skip Elkin nor Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller could be reached for comment.
As the two remaining commissioners, Elkin and Miller can continue to do county business as a quorum. If one of them were unavailable to vote on an important matter, Presiding Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler would be empowered to do so under state law.
County Clerk Wendy Noren is responsible for appointing either Elkin or Miller to preside. She said that when Presiding Commissioner Norma Robb died while in office in 1985, she alternated presiding status among the two remaining commissioners. Norma Robb and Ed Robb were not related.
In appointing Ed Robb’s replacement, Nixon is not bound to follow the recommendation of the Republican Central Committee.
Robb came to Columbia in 1972 to take a position as director of MU’s new Economic Research Center, according to a previous Missourian story. He told Missourian reporter Spencer Willems in 2008 that he was not initially drawn to politics.
“I loved chemistry. I loved mathematics,” he said. “I loved how precise everything could be, and how impactful that was.”
An education in economics, Robb said, established a good foundation for life.
Thinking like an economist “gives you a structured approach to a lot of things, to most things, really,” he said. “From a business standpoint, from a managerial standpoint … the strict application of economic theory can make life very simple if you follow the rules.”
Schaefer said Robb was a tremendous help to him when he campaigned for state Senate against incumbent Democrat Chuck Graham in 2008. “Ed was already established and was very supportive in sharing resources to make my campaign a success,” he said.
“Ed could be pretty gruff, but he was a very, very smart man, very intelligent,” Schaefer said. “He had strong feelings on what was best for the economy and the state of Missouri.”
After Schaefer was appointed to the Senate Appropriations Committee, he often would seek Robb’s advice. “He had a tremendous wealth of knowledge on the state budget,” he said.
Former 21st District State Rep. Steve Hobbs of Mexico, Mo., said Robb already was famous for his expertise in budgeting when Hobbs arrived at the Capitol after being elected in 2002.
“I knew how much he cared for his family and how much he loved Rosa and how much he enjoyed living in Columbia,” Hobbs said. “He deeply cared for the university.
“He was a numbers guy,” Hobbs continued. “If you wanted to argue with him, you’d better have the facts.”
Robb was born July 1, 1942, in Chicago. He earned his undergraduate degree from Bradley University and his master’s and doctoral degrees in economics from Michigan State University.
He also is survived by five children.
Funeral arrangements were pending. The Robb family said in a statement that it is “grateful for the tremendous outpouring of love, prayers and support.” The family asked “for continued prayers and for privacy at this time.”
Hobbs said he and Robb became fast and lasting friends while working in the General Assembly.
“You have the pain of the loss,” Hobbs said, “but that’s quickly replaced by good memories, and that makes it all OK.”